Gift of the Oracle
by Nancy M
The characters in this story are the property of MCA/Universal Pictures and are used without their permission. No copyright infringement is intended.
Events in this story take place in Season 3, following Gabrielle’s Hope, and immediately preceding The Debt.
This story contains material suggestive of an adult relationship between Xena and Gabrielle.
A special thank you to Skylark for some excellent editorial suggestions.
Thinking back, Gabrielle wasn't sure exactly what the fight had been about at the beginning. She did know that by the end neither she nor Xena were holding anything back, and had Gabrielle not stormed away they might have come to blows. Well, probably not blows, but the words they had hurled at each other hurt as much. And the silence that followed while Gabrielle separated her own belongings from Xena's had been almost unbearable. Only her rage had kept her from feeling the pain. She channeled that rage into an effort to get as far away from Xena as possible.
The road was smooth and well traveled. Gabrielle's feet pounded the earth with each step, jarring her spine in a most satisfying manner. She tried to lengthen her stride, to put more distance behind her but found she was already at a full walking step. So she leaned forward and broke into a mile-eating dogtrot, which she could maintain until dark. Her pack began to bounce and she tightened the straps.
What had Xena been thinking to speak to her like that? How could she dare say those things? Gabrielle knew her own retorts had been less than kind. She also knew, from the pattern of their previous disputes, that she could have ended it at least three separate times. But she hadn't. Hadn't backed down, hadn't rationalized, hadn't sought the compromise they both could live with. Hadn't groveled. She had matched Xena line for line, insult for insult.
If Gabrielle had been completely honest with herself she would have recognized her own responsibility for the situation. Despite all the conciliatory statements at the time, she hadn't forgiven the warrior for seeking the death of her child. The anger had simmered within since they had left Britannia two weeks ago. In short, she had been spoiling for a fight.
And if she had looked even deeper into her heart she would have recognized her own feelings of guilt for thwarting Xena's attempts to kill Hope, and for making her believe the baby was dead. Every time she looked at Xena that knowledge ate at her. Some unconscious part of her believed that being free of Xena would free her from that responsibility.
But Gabrielle was most certainly not being honest with herself.
The white-hot rage that had fueled her initial flight began to burn down to an enduring heat as the shadows lengthened into evening. Gabrielle looked forward to spending the night at the inn in Bralos, a short distance ahead.
She slowed to a walk several hundred paces from the inn to allow the fine sheen of sweat to dry and mentally she added a hot bath to the list of things she looked forward to. The residual self-righteousness of her anger left her feeling strong and bright.
The innkeeper stared at her when she pushed through the door. "We've got no room for you, Miss," her said, tension thick in his voice.
Gabrielle should have heeded the warning, but she was intent on her bath.
"I don't believe that," she answered. "Your rooms are dark and I only see three men here in the tavern. Now I need a room. And a bath," she added.
"I said there's no room here." The innkeeper jerked his head toward the three men and lowered his voice. "Now just be smart and move on."
Gabrielle sized up the other guests. Two wore officer's uniforms of a foreign army, and the third seemed to be their subordinate. Probably couriers with messages between leaders far away. The men continued to drink their ale, but Gabrielle could tell from the way they sat that they were listening to her conversation. Best not let them think Greek women were pushovers.
"And I said I want a room and a bath. What? You think I can't pay?" She slapped five dinars on the bar. Her anger at Xena transferred nicely to the innkeeper, and it felt good. She gripped her staff, feeling the comfortable rough strength of it.
Just then a bar maid came from the back room. From the resemblance, Gabrielle guessed she was the innkeeper’s daughter. The young woman nervously placed a platter of roast meat on the men's table and started to back away, but one of the officers grabbed her wrist.
"I could use a little something extra to warm my bed tonight," he said, pulling her onto his lap. His voice was thickly accented. The girl squealed and tried to pull away, and her father started to move toward the table, but a sharp glare from the other officer stopped him.
It didn't stop Gabrielle. Her staff cracked down across the first man's wrist, breaking his hold on the girl, who scurried away. He doubled over in pain and roared his anger.
The second man was on his feet instantly, moving like a cat. He charged her, anticipating the obvious block and moving in under it. It would have worked, but Gabrielle saw the subtle change in his weight and spun to bring her staff across his back, sending him sprawling towards the door.
By now the first man had pulled his dagger and held it menacingly. She let her guard drop just enough to entice him to attack, then brought the staff up sharply under his chin. He dropped, but continued to watch her warily from his knees.
The man she had knocked toward the door began to rise.
"You’ll stay down if you know what’s good for you," she growled.
To her surprise both men chuckled.
"I think you’d better drop that staff, little girl."
"Right," she said sarcastically. "You’re gonna make me. You and what army?"
Now both men laughed heartily. It wasn’t a pleasant sound.
"Well now. We couldn’t fit them all inside, but we’ll just show you ‘what army." The back door opened and a dozen armed uniformed men strode in, led by the third man who slipped out during the fray.
Gabrielle weighed the odds and lowered her staff. With Xena at her side it would have been a fair fight, but alone she didn’t stand a chance.
"Sergeant, take her outside for a look-see. She’s earned it. Then tie her upstairs with the others."
The sergeant took her arm roughly and twisted the staff from her grasp, tossing it clattering into the corner. Then he dragged her out the back door onto the terrace, which overlooked the plain in the valley.
He grunted with satisfaction when Gabrielle gasped at what she saw. Laid out, filling the valley below her, were hundreds, no thousands, of army tents. Because only a few campfires were lit, the casual passerby would not notice the tents in the darkness. But the moon was bright and Gabrielle’s trained eye saw what the officer had intended her to see – a huge invading army poised to sweep down on the Attic peninsula.
By the time the soldiers had tied Gabrielle to a chair in an upper room she had collected enough facts from their conversations to know what was about to befall the heartland of Greece. Persia, their ancient enemy, was once again seeking domination. This time they had used stealth – crossing the northern Aegean in hundreds of boats, massing on the shores of Greece just north of Molos, and preparing to march down the peninsula on unsuspecting Thebes and Athens. But Gabrielle knew tactics well enough to realize that the Persians’ plan would only succeed if they could get south of the mountain passes before engaging the armies of Thebes and Athens. The restricted passes would prevent them from capitalizing on their superior numbers, and allow Thebes’ elite Sacred Band to use their greater skill to take the day. But that was all moot if no one could spread the alarm to Thebes.
Gabrielle pulled against her bonds without success. The other captives no longer struggled, but watched her in the moonlight streaming through the window. It was a mixed group. Two families with children, a trader, three farmers on their way to market, and a woman Gabrielle guessed was the innkeeper’s wife, held hostage against her husband and daughter’s cooperation. They all looked like steady folks, but Gabrielle sensed there wasn’t a reliable fighter in the bunch. She knew Xena would have made short work of their escape, but despite her predicament, Xena was the last person she wanted to see. Her anger flamed again, and she flared her nostrils, letting her fury at the warrior steady her nerves. Bitch, she mouthed under her gag.
She needed a plan. Why the Persians hadn’t just killed them all outright she didn’t know. But she did know the fate of Greece depended on someone getting the word ahead to Thebes and Athens. A rider on a swift horse could do it, but Gabrielle had seen no horses in the inn’s stable.
Suddenly the moonlight was eclipsed. By the time Gabrielle had twisted around to see what had caused it, the light returned and she heard feet land lightly behind her.
She didn’t need to see her to know who it was.
Xena slit the bindings on Gabrielle’s wrists and moved on to the next captive. For a moment Gabrielle had an irrational urge to reject the help, to leave the rest of her bindings in place. But logic prevailed and she pulled the gag out of her mouth. She had loosed the ropes on her feet when they heard heavy footsteps on the stairs.
"Pretend you’re still tied," Xena hissed sharply.
Gabrielle quickly wrapped the ropes around her feet again and looked frantically for her gag. It lay to her left, out of reach.
The door started to open and torchlight danced across the floor. Gabrielle heard a scurry to her left, where the gag had been thrown, and then she felt it in her mouth, being pulled tight and held from behind. The gag almost cut the corners of her mouth, and Xena’s forearm pressed into her back while she hid in the shadow behind Gabrielle. The bard wanted to jerk away, to be free from her touch, her interference, but again common sense prevailed.
The guards looked around the room, glancing briefly at each prisoner, then, satisfied, backed out the door.
Now Gabrielle gave in to her anger. She yanked her head to the side just as Xena released the gag. It fell two paces away.
"Do you think you could have held that a little tighter, maybe?" she snarled.
"You’re welcome, and it’s so nice to see you too," Xena answered, matching her tone.
"Hey! I was gonna get us all out of this!"
Gabrielle just glared, and Xena turned to cut the others free. "Did you see the army camped in the valley?" she asked. When they all nodded she turned to the trader. "You must speak Persian. Did you overhear anything about their objectives?"
Gabrielle started to object that she understood enough Persian to glean the needed information, but Xena silenced her. "This man has been here longer, and I’m sure as a trader his Persian is far better than yours."
"Fine," Gabrielle snapped.
"Fine," Xena echoed.
The man looked at each of them, then told what he knew. It was much the same as what Gabrielle had learned, but with many more details about troop strength, logistics, planned routes, and tactics. Xena nodded as he spoke, cataloging the information.
When he stopped the warrior had a plan ready. "I have a good horse. I can take the northern road past Mount Parnassus, warn the small villages, and get to Orchomenos before morning. The militia there can get back to the pass and hold the Persians while another messenger goes on to Thebes. The Thebans can reinforce Orchomenos by late in the day. Hopefully that will be soon enough. Any way to slow them down, you think?"
One of the farmers grinned. "I think that’s already been taken care of. Celia – the tavern girl – took my whole wagon load of Aetolian tubers and fed them to the non-coms for dinner." The other farmer grinned too, but Xena didn’t get it.
"So? I like Aetolian tubers. Nice and spicy."
"So, Greek stomachs like them. Foreigners, especially delicate Persians, tend to get diarrhea from them."
Xena smiled. "Remind me to thank Celia." Then she sobered. "Still, it will be close. We’ll be lucky if the Orchomenos militia is ready to march in time."
"There’s one more thing," the trader spoke quietly. "They mean to kill the oracle at Delphi. They’re sending cavalry at first light."
No one spoke. The oracle, the living conduit to Apollo, was sacred to all Greeks. Her death would be unthinkable, an affront to the very nature of the Delian League and it’s special relationship with Apollo.
The inn keeper’s wife said, "Couldn’t you warn Delphi on your way to Orchomenos? Give the oracle a chance to hide?"
"It’s not that easy. Delphi is on the south flank of Mount Parnassus. If I take the southern road it’ll take almost twice as long. I’d never make it to Orchomenos in time."
Gabrielle had kept silent throughout the discussion, simmering at Xena’s presumption of command, resenting that everything she said made sense. Now she cleared her throat. "I’ll run to Delphi while you take Argo to Orchomenos."
Xena looked at her, as if noticing her for the first time. "That’s a twenty five kilometer run."
"You know I can do it."
"Yeah, I know you can do it. I need to know if you will do it. That I can count on you."
"What’s that supposed to mean?"
"Just that. Can I count on you?"
"Have I ever let you down?"
"I don’t know. Have you?"
Gabrielle glared at her, the retort dying on her lips as she recognized the truth. Xena couldn’t know that Hope lived, could she?
Several moments passed as the two exchanged stony stares across the moonlit room. Finally Xena looked away. "Fine. That’s what we do then."
"Fine." Gabrielle stooped to adjust the laces on her boots, jerking harder than necessary and breaking one. She cursed and hurled it away.
"Here," said the trader, handing her one from his pack. " Use this."
Gabrielle mumbled her thanks and took the lace, ever mindful of Xena’s critical gaze. "My staff is downstairs in the tavern."
"Leave it," the warrior said. "You’ll run better without it."
"But what if…"
"I said leave it. You won’t need to fight, and you will need to be swift. Besides, there are soldiers in the tavern."
Gabrielle was loath to obey, wanting to inform the warrior that she no longer took orders from her, but the logic was inescapable. She clenched her teeth. Why did Xena have to be right all the time?
"Do you know the road to Delphi?" Xena asked.
"Yes I know the road to Delphi. We went there for festival last year, or had you forgotten?"
"I remember the festival. What I asked was if you remember the road."
"Fine." Gabrielle stared, and gave a curt nod. "I’m off then." She strode to the window, took a deep breath, and jumped to the ground.
The temperature was cooler now, and Gabrielle could smell the last of the evening dew on the breeze. She started slowly, her muscles stiff from the earlier run and several hours of forced restraint. By the end of the first kilometer the stiffness had become pain, but she kept on, working to smooth her stride and lessen the jarring to her knees.
The full moon was high overhead by now, and the road was clear and bright ahead of her. By the third kilometer the knots were worked from her legs and her breathing had settled into a regular pattern. Two strides in, two out. A song in the same meter played in her head, lulling her thoughts away from the ache in her limbs.
Somewhere to the north, on a road rapidly diverging from her own, she knew Xena rode. For just a moment Gabrielle held a mental image of the warrior, racing in the moonlight, her hair streaming behind her, and she felt a stab of regret. Just as quickly she squelched the image. No, she thought. That’s past. It’s not part of my life now.
It was the first time Gabrielle had thought about where her estrangement would take her. Until now her anger and guilt had prevented her from imagining her life without Xena. That image rose now, unbidden, and she shoved it deep into the recesses of her mind.
Eleven kilometers into her mission the road began to rise, starting the long ascent to the thin heights of Delphi. It was well past midnight and the moon shone behind her, throwing her shadow across her path. She had to concentrate harder to choose good footing.
Ten minutes later she had to slow her pace. Fatigue in her thighs and knees made each step quiver and the road rose more sharply. She desperately wanted to walk just a little way, but she knew it would do little good. Her breathing and pulse were strong. It was the drained muscles in her legs that challenged her, and once she began to walk, she knew she wouldn’t be able to run again. And so she kept on.
Eventually the nature of the trail dictated her pace. The switchbacks were frequent and she realized that by climbing straight up instead of following the road she could shorten the trip considerably.
So she climbed and clambered up the slope, using her hands to pull up the steepest parts. It was slow work, but faster than running the winding road. Still, the moon was settling to the horizon by the time she reached the approaches to the temple complex. A hint of dawn tinged the sky and softened the moon’s stark shadows.
Gabrielle knew that twenty five kilometers to the northwest, a cavalry unit was mounting to race here and slaughter the woman who spoke the words of Apollo. Gabrielle prayed the woman would have adequate time to flee or hide.
She stumbled the last few steps of the approach, and called out, hoping the temple acolytes would hear. They did.
"Who disturbs the rest of the oracle?" challenged a youth who was trying to appear older than his years.
"My name is Gabrielle," she gasped. "I’ve come to warn the oracle. There’s a Persian cavalry unit. Riding this way. They’re going to kill her. Hurry. Tell her."
The boy’s eyes widened and he spun and ran up into the temple complex. Gabrielle turned and started slowly pacing to cool down. Her legs wobbled and soon her sweat felt like ice. After a few minutes she paused to watch the dawn and the pale moon setting, and then she heard a voice behind her.
"Gabrielle? Good. You’re still here. Come and refresh yourself."
Gabrielle turned to see a woman not much older than herself, dressed in a simple white shift, her dark hair pulled back.
"Does the oracle know? Does she have enough time to get to a safe place?"
"Yes, the oracle knows, and yes, I have enough time. Now come rest yourself. You’ve earned it."
"You? You’re the oracle? But I expected a…"
"People expect many things, Gabrielle. Reality is rarely the same. My name is Nerin." She held her hand out, beckoning Gabrielle.
The bard followed her up the steps into the temple area, then onto a small terrace overlooking the entire southern half of the peninsula. A table was laid with bread, fruit, yogurt, cheese, and clear water.
"I…I should cool down some more before I eat," she said.
"Fine. Start with some water and eat when you’re ready. Can you tell me about the Persians?"
Gabrielle took the offered cup and drank a few small mouthfuls. "It’s a big army. Thousands that I could see, and maybe more. We overheard the soldiers talking." She swallowed some more water. It was cool, but not cold, and very satisfying. "Most of the army will march north of Mount Parnassus today, and attack Thebes, then Athens." Three more sips. "But a unit of cavalry is on its way here, to kill you." Gabrielle shook her head. "And why aren’t you fleeing now, instead of playing hostess of the month?"
"Oh, there’s plenty of time to hide. You’ll join me, I hope. I hate waiting alone."
"What about your acolytes?" Gabrielle had seen at least three youths in attendance.
Nerin smiled. "Don’t worry about them! They’re goatherds. There are more than a dozen who pasture their animals near here. They take turns serving me. They’ll just go back to their herds until the danger passes. Invaders rarely harm the folks that grow the groceries, and it won’t occur to them that the boys have another job."
Gabrielle started sampling the bread and fruit and soon was eating hungrily. Nerin asked her a few questions and Gabrielle found herself talking comfortably with the woman about her life in Potidaea, and then with Xena. She stopped short of their trip to Britannia, saying only that she and Xena had been on their way back to Athens after a trip up north.
Finally she stopped eating. While she was not full, she knew better than to stuff herself after a long run. Nerin stood. "It’s time we hid ourselves. Besides, you could use some rest." She stopped and looked askance at Gabrielle. "And a bath." Gabrielle blushed.
Nerin led her up a narrow trail above the temple, following a winding stream. The stream emerged from under a rock outcrop, and Nerin ducked under the overhang. Gabrielle followed, finding herself in a moderate cavern that contained a large pool of water.
"Nerin this is lovely, but the Persians are sure to look in here."
"They won’t look where we’re going. Come on. Hold my hand." The woman led Gabrielle into the water until they stood waist deep. "Take a deep breath and follow me."
Gabrielle was enjoying the clear, tepid water, caressing her skin and buoying her aching muscles. Nerin’s dive startled her but she quickly followed into the blackness, deciding to hold onto Nerin’s belt instead of her hand, so as not to impede her swimming.
They swam down for a long time before leveling off. Gabrielle could see nothing, but once her foot kicked rock overhead and she realized they were in an underwater tunnel. Just as she thought her lungs would burst, Nerin turned sharply upwards and their heads broke the surface a few seconds later. Gabrielle followed Nerin a few yards until she felt sandy bottom under her feet.
"Why don’t you give me your clothes, Gabrielle? I’ll spread them out to dry and you can enjoy the water for a while. We have dry towels here, and blankets."
As her eyes adjusted Gabrielle realized that the inner chamber wasn’t completely dark. A sliver of light reflected down from a small slit overhead. But the darkness was more than adequate for privacy’s sake, and she gratefully removed her clothes and boots and handed them to Nerin before turning back into the delicious water.
After a few minutes of just savoring the water and swimming in the shallows Gabrielle settled to the pleasant task of bathing. It had been weeks since she had had the luxury of a leisurely bath. Since before the flight from Britannia, before Hope’s birth, before she killed Meridia. Since before Xena had taken her blood innocence and her child from her. She inhaled sharply as the memories assailed her.
"Do you want me to wash your back?" Nerin called to her.
The question evoked a very different memory. Suddenly she remembered Xena’s touch, gently washing her shoulders, her back, her ears. Laughing with her. Loving her. The conflicting emotions warred inside her.
"No…no. That’s okay," she answered hoarsely. She dipped her head back underwater, rinsing her hair back from her face, and washing away the tears which had come suddenly. She stood and walked out of the water, accepting a towel from Nerin. She groaned as her feet took her full weight.
"Yeah. My feet are killing me." She hoped Nerin would accept that excuse for the roughness in her voice. Besides, her feet were killing her.
"Dry off and lie down. I’ll massage them for you."
Gabrielle toweled off, glad for the cloak of darkness. "Nerin, you’re the oracle of Apollo. You don’t need to be massaging my feet."
"Yeah, well, I’m the living oracle of Apollo, which I probably wouldn’t be except for you. Now shut up and enjoy it."
Gabrielle complied and soon the relaxation and cessation of pain spread through the rest of her body. There was still tension in her chest though, and a tightness in her throat.
Nerin finished, and Gabrielle lay back on the soft blanket. She was about to ask if she minded if she took a nap, but Nerin spoke first. Her voice carried a different timbre now, not that of Nerin, her new friend, but that of the oracle of Apollo.
"The god Apollo would give you a gift for your help, and a warning. Accept these words from Olympus, and heed them well."
Gabrielle sat up and gazed in the direction of the voice. She could just make out Nerin’s pale form.
"The gift is this. What your heart most desires is yours, if you but ask for it. And the warning is this. If you do not confess what you hide, and forgive what has been done, all that you care about, all that you love, will be lost."
The words struck home. How could she know what I hide, thought Gabrielle.
"Sleep now. Your body and your soul need rest." Nerin padded to the other side of the cavern. Not trusting herself to reply, Gabrielle rolled away from her.
The soft wool blanket rustled gently against Gabrielle’s naked body. She ran her hands over her bare shoulders and stomach, feeling the smooth strength, the clean soft skin. Lulled by unaccustomed security, she let her guard down, and just briefly imagined Xena’s touch on her shoulders, the way her hands caressed those smooth muscles, and then would run, on fingertips, down her back, her ass, her thighs. How she would kiss the back of her neck as her breath warmed her. She remembered the last place Xena had touched her, her forearm pressed between her shoulder blades, and her skin burned to remember it.
This time Gabrielle didn’t try to fight it, to force herself to remember her anger at the warrior. She remembered only her lover’s caress, the places she touched and how that made Gabrielle respond. Her body responded now, despite her exhaustion, but the loss of her heart overwhelmed her body’s need for release, and she surrendered instead to tears, and finally dreamless sleep.
She awakened to a voice reverberating through the cavern. Still muzzy headed, it took her several moments to locate herself until Nerin spoke.
"It’s safe now. That was Hormeus, shouting down through the vent. The soldiers have gone away." The woman was gathering their clothes
"How long was I asleep?" Gabrielle asked as she rolled to her knees.
"At least six hours. You needed it," Nerin answered as she wrapped their clothes in two watertight cloths.
Gabrielle gasped as she started to stand. Every muscle from her waist down ached horrifically. She stood gingerly and began working her legs to loosen up, before going to a corner to relieve herself.
When she returned Nerin handed her a bundle. "It won’t keep them perfectly dry, but it’s better than wearing sopping clothes all day. Come on. Let’s get out of here."
They retraced their path through the underwater tunnel and burst into the light of the outer cave. Gabrielle winced as the sunlight stabbed at her fully dark-adapted eyes. They stepped out onto the sandy shore and Gabrielle was suddenly very aware of her nakedness. She quickly unwrapped her bundle and dressed. Nerin seemed amused at her prudery as she slipped into her shift.
Despite Hormeus’ word of safety, they looked around cautiously before emerging from the cavern. Gabrielle sorely missed her staff, and wondered what would become of it, along with the rest of her abandoned life. And there was a question she needed to ask.
"Nerin, do you really speak the words of Apollo? I mean, can you really see the future, know what’s going to happen?"
Nerin smiled thoughtfully. "Yes and no, Gabrielle. I have been given a gift to see into the hearts of people, to understand their dreams, their courage, what it is they truly want even if they don’t know themselves. It’s not hard from there to anticipate the future based on knowing how hard a person will try for something."
Gabrielle nodded. "But can the gods really change the future? I’ve talked to gods myself. They can do all kinds of magic, but can they really make something happen?"
"You want to know if Apollo will really give you your heart’s desire. I can’t tell you that per se, but I can tell you that when you accept what that desire really is, surrender to it, then it will be yours."
Gabrielle was thoughtful as Nerin prepared a light meal very similar to the one they had eaten earlier. It was well past noon and Gabrielle wondered how things were to the north. Had Xena roused the Orchomenos militia in time? Was the Sacred Band of Thebes marching west now? Where was Xena? Would she ever see her again? Would Xena care?
Nerin left Gabrielle to her thoughts, but as they finished eating, she asked where she would go next.
"I guess I’ll go to Thebes, then maybe Athens. I don’t know. I guess I hadn’t thought about it."
Nerin reached out and took Gabrielle’s arm. She looked into her eyes, a penetrating gaze that forced Gabrielle to look away. "No Gabrielle. Listen to me." Gabrielle met her eyes now, and Nerin went on. "Gabrielle, I don’t have to be an oracle to see your pain. You have lost something – someone – who is the whole world to you. And you blame yourself for it." Gabrielle’s eyes welled with tears. "Listen. Don’t walk away from it. The blame is not all yours. It never is. And the person you love is hurting as much as you are."
"How can you know that?" Gabrielle choked.
"Because I know your heart. And if I were the person you loved, the loss of your friendship would destroy me. Gabrielle, you are a gift – to the world, to Greece, to me for saving my life, and especially to those you love." Nerin shook her head and clasped Gabrielle’s arm tightly. "Don’t throw that away. Don’t let that pain go on. Please."
Gabrielle nodded, her face contorting as she tried to control her tears. Nerin pulled her close and held her for several moments until Gabrielle pushed away. "Okay. I’ll try, but I don’t think Xena ever wants to see me again."
"You don’t know that until you try, now, do you?"
"I don’t even know where to find her."
"Gabrielle, you will find each other."
The bard nodded again, and wiped her eyes. "I don’t know what to say to her. I’m still angry too, you know."
"You’ll figure it out. I’m guessing she’s going to try to make it easy for you. But, listen." Nerin paused to make sure she had Gabrielle’s attention. "Do not forget the warning. If you ignore it, the pain you will cause will be far, far worse than what you feel now."
It was late afternoon by the time Gabrielle crested the eastern flank of Mount Parnassus and began her descent to the Bralon/Orchomenos road. When Gabrielle had refused Nerin’s offers of rest that night at Delphi, Nerin had pointed the way to a goat track short-cutting over the mountain. Hormeus accompanied her the first few kilometers, but had turned back hours ago.
Now the shadows deepened in front of her as she picked her way. She moved cautiously on wobbly knees and shaky muscles, wishing again for her staff to steady her.
She had just about decided to stop for the night when the trail spilled onto a ledge from which Gabrielle could see the entire valley. To the northwest in the distance a huge dust cloud rose, the kind made by men and horses in battle. She noted with satisfaction and a hint of bittersweet, that the battle was in the mountain passes. Xena had saved all of Greece once again.
Xena. She was seeking her, but she didn’t even know where to begin in patching their fractured relationship. While her love was greater, her anger still lingered. Xena had sought Hope’s death without a single thought for Gabrielle’s feelings as a mother. Gabrielle knew she needed to hear Xena’s apology for that, or at least her understanding of why it hurt so. What else was she angry about? Xena had left her virtually alone, at Dahok’s whim, while she sought her own vengeance on Caesar. All the horrid events that followed came back to that.
She took a breath. Alright, she thought. We can talk about those things.
The next topic wouldn’t be so easy. How could she tell Xena that she had defied her, that she had deceived her, that Hope lived? More than anything she didn’t want to confess that to Xena. Did she really have to? Maybe the oracle was wrong.
She had worked her way down off the ledge and was looking for a likely campsite when she heard a cough ahead of her in a cedar grove. She stopped and froze, staring into the darkening gloom.
There was a rustling, and Xena stepped onto the trail.
They stood awkwardly for a moment, looking at each other. Then Xena shifted her weight and looked away.
"Hi," she said in a hesitant voice.
Gabrielle crossed her arms and tried to think of a good response. "Hi."
"I didn’t want to startle you, it being late and out in the woods alone and all."
"Oh. That’s okay."
Another second of awkwardness, then "I brought you something." Xena turned back into the grove and emerged a moment later carrying Gabrielle’s staff. "I thought you might want it. Need it." She rubbed the back of her neck. "Miss it."
Gabrielle walked forward just far enough to take the staff. "How did you…I mean, why…?"
"Celia fetched it before I left. She seemed to think she owed it to you."
Silence descended again, but neither made a move to leave. Finally Gabrielle spoke. "How did you know I’d be on this trail?"
Xena seemed glad to have a question to answer. "I met a goatherd on the road. He told me this trail was the best shortcut to Delphi. So after I gave the alarm at Orchomenos I backtracked here." She gave her head a shake. "I had to leave Argo below, but she’ll be okay."
"Uh huh." Gabrielle poked at the dirt with her toe, then finally screwed up her courage.
"Xena, I said some things…"
"No Gabrielle," Xena interrupted. "It’s not your fault. Not all of it anyway."
"Please, Xena, just let me…talk."
Xena pursed her lips, then nodded.
"I was angry. I still am a little, I guess. Xena, it hurt when you wouldn’t give Hope a chance. She was my child. You’re a mother. You should have understood." She stopped and took a breath to calm herself. "But I never should have said those things yesterday. I guess I just wanted to hurt you too."
Xena nodded. "You did. Hurt me, I mean. And you were right."
"Gabrielle, let me talk now."
Gabrielle nodded, her stomach in knots anticipating what Xena might say.
"You haven’t exactly been easy to be with these past few weeks. But I should have understood how you felt, should have realized you had a mother’s love for the child, no matter how evil she was." Gabrielle waited. She wanted to hear Xena say she was sorry for insisting on killing the child. But those words didn’t come.
Xena continued. "I should have let you just vent yesterday. Gods know, you had it building up long enough. What was it we were fighting about, anyway?"
Gabrielle shrugged. She was trying to think how to confess her actions with Hope. But instead she just said "Does it matter?"
"Not really. What matters most is this." Xena reached her hand to Gabrielle, who hesitated, then took it. "I never, ever, should have doubted you. When you told me you had thrown Hope off the cliff I should have known you were telling the truth. After all we’ve been through, how could I have questioned you?"
Gabrielle looked away, tears coming to her eyes. Xena mistook their cause. "You have given me so much these past few years. I have needed to believe in your goodness in order to hold onto my own. How could I think you would throw that all away?" Xena raised her hand and cradled Gabrielle’s cheek.
Gabrielle had yearned to hear those words, yet now they rang hollow with her deceit. But Xena’s touch lit fires long dormant. She leaned her head into Xena’s hand and let the warrior brush the tears with her thumb. The oracle’s warning faded as Gabrielle gave in to her need.
Xena pulled her closer, still holding her cheek, and pressed her forehead to the bard’s. With her other hand she touched Gabrielle’s side, hesitantly, questioning at first, then firmly, running her hand around to the small of her back and pulling her close.
Gabrielle groaned softly. It had been so long. As Xena began to kiss the tears away Gabrielle inhaled deeply, drinking in the musky salt-sweet fragrance of Xena’s hair as it brushed her face. Her mouth sought Xena’s and all thought of her confession evaporated as she accepted Apollo’s gift.
Afterwards they lay, limbs entwined and the evening chill creeping over their sweaty bodies. Xena snored lightly, and Gabrielle watched the warrior’s chest rise and fall.
She could never tell her now. She could only pray that Hope would grow up healthy, happy, and good. These last few years had meant so much to Gabrielle, too much to risk throwing them away with a confession that probably wasn’t necessary. And she meant too much to Xena. The warrior’s grasp on goodness was tenuous enough as it was. She certainly didn’t need to have her faith in Gabrielle, her anchor to the light, shattered by knowledge of her deceit.
And so she relaxed into Xena’s sleeping arms, the last of her tears falling unnoticed on the warrior’s breast.
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